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To the Gypsies, suffering brings soul


With the third cup of thick, sweet Bosnian coffee, every nerve jerks awake, and I scribble madly, finally caffeinated enough to get my hosts’ crisscrossing, broken-English stories teased apart. Accuracy is even more important than usual: These refugees are Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies, forced to St. Louis when no European country would take them. Now, in the quiet corner of southwest St. Louis where they’ve settled, stereotypes are raging.

Assumptions about the Roma can be summed up in a few labels: dirty, noisy wanderers; thieves, liars and bamboozlers. I’m not worried about falling into that particular trap -- no one has borne it out yet.

This family, for example, speaks with great scorn of “the other kind of Gypsy,” those who move from place to place begging. Their own father worked as a tailor, and sent them to school. Yet all their lives, they’ve been tarred with the same old “Gypsy” brush. Judging by the fire in their eyes, they never deserved it.

There. That’s what I’m afraid of. Fire in their eyes, dark skin, brilliantly colored full skirts. ... I’m tipping backward into the other stereotype: the last nomads, the free-spirited, passionate bohemians with mysterious rituals and powers.

The romance is nearly as unfair as the fear and hate, distracting us from the hardships and persecution these “carefree” people have endured for centuries. In Europe, the Roma have been cast out, burned in medieval pogroms, sterilized, ghettoized, forced to give up their way of dress and life, caught in other people’s wars, more than half a million slaughtered in the Holocaust. Last fall, residents of a small town in the Czech Republic built a wall in the dark of night to segregate two Roma apartment buildings. It was hardly a romantic awakening (the wall later came down after wide protests; see NCR, Jan. 21).

I am so determined not to buy the stereotype that I ignore their invitation to hear “Gypsy music” -- until Mirela explains, “Music is something beautiful to us,” and her nephew tells me how other Bosnians seek out their music. I weaken. “Yes of course, please play some for me.”

The tape starts, and the 16-year-old son translates the ballad’s sad story. He finishes by announcing that gypsies feel pain more intensely than other people; they give more of their deepest selves. They have, he says firmly, “better souls.”

I almost don’t write it down.

But later, when I ask his mom to define the essence of Roma culture, she says immediately, “We have good souls.” When I talk to another Roma, from a completely different family, he mentions “soul” not once, but three separate times. A Bosnian man remarks that Roma music is like no other in its ability to touch the soul.

Is this the stuff of stereotype or a deeper truth? Can whole peoples have “soul”? The only other group I’ve heard thus described is African-Americans. Suddenly I remember how, when I first started researching the Roma, several Bosnians said to me, “Gypsies are our blacks.”

Close your eyes and listen to Muddy Waters singing the blues, or Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg playing violin melodies of the Hungarian Roma. You know immediately, this music has soul. White pop music does not. It stays close to the surface, whining or bopping or lusting coyly, with the emotional range and depth of a 13-year-old in the suburbs. There’s even soul food in these cultures -- spicy, abundant and satisfying, readily shared, easily turned into a celebration.

But what does it mean to say that an entire subculture has more soul than the rest of us?

More than 95 percent of the Roma in America are illiterate, it’s said. Until recently, they thrived in an oral tradition. Many still shun school as a contaminant to their culture; they do nimble calculations in their heads, no computers in sight, and speak an array of languages without ever reading a book.

Is illiteracy, the scourge of civilized society, linked to soul?

Books have shaped and colored my entire life. I am loath to brand them soul killers. Yet the unschooled men and women I interview are remarkably articulate, expressing complex emotional truths with wit, vividness and precision -- as though they stole color and wisdom from sources that scholars had long forgotten.

People with soul are not brittle or defensive. They are not shocked when the world damages their dreams. They bend. They do not break. The rest of us know this and are drawn to them.

Soul, by the Greek etymology, animates; it brings all aspects of the self to life, nothing smothered under a pillow or stuffed into a closet. The mother of this family readily admits, eyes full of pain, that she had three abortions during the war years; that she’s begun taking antidepressants; that she tried to kill herself in Holland. Yet she answers in a flash when asked life’s purpose: “For family, children.”

When a Rom dies, the other Roma in his world know within hours, and they will travel across countries to attend the funeral. They are connected in a way no cell phone can replicate. When they are together, they eat from a single plate, and they party with gusto. “Gadje [non-Roma] just eat pita,” joked one Rom. “We eat the whole lamb.”

How can I not romanticize this sort of soulfulness, in a society that’s forgotten how to share and is so terrified of sadness or helplessness that it pops pills to control the body’s chemistry? Antidepressants have their role, to be sure -- the Romani need them, too, to survive the world’s cruel challenge. But they are not afraid of the melancholy that’s an inescapable part of human life and they are not afraid to admit the power of fate. They’ve had no choice.

Adversity, it’s said, builds character.

But it’s suffering that deepens soul.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000